Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Charlotte Matthews worked to give her students one thing: space to tell their stories

“The pandemic has been like a number slide puzzle with all of the pieces jumbled up, all of us fighting to get the numbers back in order,” said Matthews, an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “We had to remember our masks, wash our hands, not touch our faces, stand six feet apart. We had to figure out how to operate in a new reality.”

In all of that, “there is not a lot of space,” she said. “Writing allows for great capaciousness, great expansiveness, which the pandemic has taken from us in many ways. Writing can give some of that back.”

Matthews knows a great deal about what sustenance writing can bring. She teaches writing courses for SCPS students in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program, designed for adult students who are returning to school to complete their college degrees. Matthews is also a prolific writer herself, with three poetry collections, a memoir and a new novel, “The Collapsible Mannequin,” to her credit. She just completed a fourth poetry collection to debut in March, “The Half Life of Regret.”

When she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 39, writing became a reliable and crucial form of relief as Matthews faced several surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. She started a writing group to help others staring down cancer diagnoses. The group’s stories are now on screen, chronicled in a short documentary, “Whistle Words,” by Red Spark Films.

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One Maya Angelou quote that Matthews brings up often – which serves as the epigraph in her memoir – captures the group’s mission and Matthews’ continual message to her students: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Working with other women facing cancer, Matthews tried to show them that writing could help make space for themselves and reclaim a bit of joy and power in the face of something so daunting. She sends a similar message to her SCPS students, reminding them that writing allows us all to tell our stories.

“Many students in the BIS program have not written for a long time, and I try to approach writing with great tenderness and open-heartedness, showing them that everyone can write,” Matthews said.

During the first class – held at night and online to accommodate students’ work schedules – Matthews typically shares an urban legend about a little girl who tells her teacher that she is drawing God. When the teacher tells her that no one knows what God looks like, the girl simply says, “Well, now they do.”

“That brazenness, that bravado can get taught out of us,” Matthews said. “I try to give it back to my students. I also tell them that I am like a Sherpa, carrying equipment and knowing where we will camp. My students are the ones who find their voice, and in so finding are going to find a lightness, putting down what they are carrying.”

Charlotte Matthews headshot
During the pandemic, Matthews said, writing seemed to make the invisible visible.

During the pandemic, she said, writing seemed to make the invisible visible. Students were able to articulate the burdens of the pandemic, to take a small step back and examine the seminal shifts happening around them.

Because she had taught hybrid classes for years, Matthews was able to transition quickly to fully online courses when UVA made that call in March 2020 and get immediately back to writing.

“I did not have to learn the technology, fortunately, so I could focus quickly and intently on my students and their complex needs,” she said. “Some had family members who were sick, or were worried about losing jobs or financial insecurity. Writing was one luxury we could give them.”

To create a more welcoming, community-focused atmosphere in a virtual room, Matthews starts each class with a few minutes of silence to encourage students to put aside whatever they were focused on before class. She often asks students to share words “for the good of the class” about something they saw that day or something they are thinking about.

One week, usually the fourth of the course, Matthews asks students to commit to some form of community service, whether writing a letter to a teacher they loved, packing supplies for someone in need or starting a compost bin. Each student has to tell the class about what they have done and what they learned. She also periodically asks students to teach the class about something that they enjoy, taking 10 minutes to share their expertise with their classmates.

“I want to debunk the idea that I am the one who knows more, the only one with the power to teach,” Matthews said. “Everyone is a teacher. Everyone has something to say.”

One former student, Gabrielle Nigmond, said Matthews creates an “atmosphere of acceptance and trust” as students write about personal experiences.

“I noticed her classes were different from other experiences because the idea of mental health was addressed each time students signed on,” Nigmond said. “It started with meditation and a recognition that writing is personal, difficult and worthwhile. She quickly created an atmosphere of trust amongst the students using a variety of response techniques. Mostly, I noticed Professor Matthews came without ego and with the purpose of instruction.”

Nigmond completed the BIS program and is now pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at Virginia Commonwealth University. She said Matthews’ belief in her changed her life.

“‘You are a writer, Gabrielle.’ It’s the sentence that changed my life,” she said. “Charlotte recognizes the adult study program is full of individuals who are trying again or for the first time, and her fountain of encouragement will forever stay with me. She’s a woman I aspire to be like – open, honest and authentically herself.”

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Matthews is certain she has learned just as much, if not more, than what she has taught students like Nigmond.

“Teaching adults who are going back to school is just such an honor, because you are working with people who have jobs and families and have set aside this time to gain an education,” she said. “I have learned so much from them, especially about the importance of compassion and deep listening. When they tell me something that has happened, or share what they love or find frightening, I have learned to deeply listen. I hope the same is true for them.”

Asked to offer parting advice for her students and other writers as we all continue to grapple with a protracted crisis, Matthews reflected on what we owe each other.

“Writing is a form of communication that has an intimacy and a power that speech does not,” she said. “We all have that power and we have an obligation, and also the privilege, if we can, to be able to put down what is in our hearts. Otherwise the world is a little emptier, a little more vacant.”

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